Fighting a Siege War

This entry is part 6 of 19 in the series War

Continued thoughts on siege warfare, from Algemeiner.

Once you start thinking about the war Israel and its supporters find themselves in as a drawn-out siege, rather than a series of pitched engagements, a number of seemingly inexplicable phenomena become understandable.

Why didn’t the Arab states (with a few important exceptions) make their peace with Israel after losing one war after another? How can Palestinians pass their misery onto their grandchildren and great-grandchildren when options for a peaceful future (including a state of their own) have been at hand for decades? Why would anti-Israel propagandists bring their BDS proposals to the same organizations year after year after year, regardless of how many times they are told “no?”

Such choices only make sense once you see them not as discrete conflicts but as individual battles in a single war – a siege war – waged by an enemy sure that time is on its side.

At a certain level, behaving in such a way is rational. After all, Israel is a small country surrounded by dozens of large, powerful and wealthy rival states. Those that support the Jewish state (notably the Jewish people) are not without resources and alliances, but nothing like the resources and alliance network of her foes. There are not, for example, 50 Jewish states taking control of the UN and other bodies in order to turn them into weapons of aggression against their enemies.

With those kinds of resources to draw upon, a siege can go on indefinitely, especially since Israel’s disinterest in completely destroying foes with whom they ultimately want to live in peace means those foes do not risk destruction if they lose one or more battles.

History also plays a role in this dynamic, since there is ample precedent for winning a war by simply outlasting your rivals. For instance, the reason the Crusades loom so large in Arab myth-making is not because they represent Christendom’s invasion of Muslim lands (Christian and Muslim empires were grabbing each other’s territory all the time before and after the Crusades, after all), but because it is perceived as a siege that Muslims eventually won after dedicating two centuries to dislodging their Christian rivals.

But history also includes ample precedent of the besieger losing a war, or getting so drained by maintaining their siege that they become vulnerable to external enemies or internal instability. In one sense, today’s chaos of the Middle East can be seen as a besieging army succumbing to its own internal contradictions while the victim of the siege (Israel) goes from strength to strength.

There are a number of variables that can change this equation, of course. Some combination of missiles and terror might finally pierce Israel’s defensive walls, for example, or an Iranian atomic bomb might make those walls irrelevant. But given that our side controls of so few of these variables, it is in our interest to help Israel maintain and strengthen itself against all possible attackers while those besiegers deal with dynamics of their own making.

In the Middle East itself, those destructive dynamics derive from toxic brew of radical politics, religious fanaticism and European-style totalitarianism that is at the heart of every civil war breaking out across the region.

You can find similar divisions and conflicts within anti-Israel organizations working abroad where surrogates for different warring parties within the Middle East struggle for control of these groups, creating inherent instability.

For example, when divestment petitions first started appearing in colleges and universities in the early 2000s, this form of anti-Israel activism was driven by an organization called the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM), a group similar to today’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) that is causing so much trouble on today’s college campuses.

As PSM achieved prominence through the headlines it generated and perceived momentum, activists with competing radical agendas began to join with the goal of taking over the group and turning it towards their own ends. These attempts at infiltration became so numerous and time-consuming that PSM finally shut its doors, rather than devote the majority of its energy fighting off hostile takeover attempts.

This kind of instability is inherent in anti-Israel politics where groups tend to form, fall apart and then reform every few years under new names and leaders, but largely with the same foot soldiers. If leadership within normal political organizations flows to those who are the most dedicated and assertive, within the radical world of anti-Israel activism fanaticism and aggression are the tickets to power. And, as history has shown, there is always someone more fanatical, ready to turn their aggression on allies in order to bend an organization to their will.

This instability offers an opening to those of us dealing with the propaganda weapon in the besieger’s arsenal. For while both Israel and its supporters want to ultimately see the Jewish state living in peace with stable and successful neighbors, none of us has any stake in living at peace with propaganda organizations like SJP and its ilk. No one misses (or even remembers) PSM, after all, and if other anti-Israel groups similarly fall to pieces due to their own unstable nature, so much the better.

In fact, it is in our interest to exploit the weaknesses inherent in local anti-Israel projects like BDS since, unlike influencing what goes on in the General Assembly of the United Nations, on-the-ground activists can and have succeeded in turning back BDS again and again. And whenever a BDS project goes up in flames, this helps to delegitimize the entire effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Man the Walls

Well I was kind of hoping that this would be the year when BDS either went away or again went into remission, as did between 2006 and 2009 when a series of embarrassing defeats no longer made it the tactic of choice among the Israel hating community.

After all, 2012 was the year when the Mainline Protestant churches gave BDS the heave ho yet again (for the fourth time in the case of the Presbyterians).  And during an era of Startup Nation, when universities and businesses are stampeding over one another to build ties to their Israeli counterparts, the ability to get this unknown food coop or that has-been rock star to do the BDSers’ bidding was making the “movement” look truly pathetic (especially since they were never able to capitalize on those meager “wins” to achieve anything remotely resembling momentum).

But as I’ve talked about again and again, it is not wins and losses that sustain the BDS tactic but fanaticism tied to fantasy, both of which kick into high gear once there is actual shooting going on in the Middle East.

Actually, the recent Gaza war is just one geopolitical factor leading to a re-energized set of Israeli dislikers gravitating towards a BDS tactic, despite what a waste of time it’s been for them over the last decade.  For as the Arab Spring turns to an Islamist winter, and formerly stable bordering states turn hostile (Egypt), chaotic (Syria) or fragile (Jordan), the propaganda arm of the anti-Israel crusade (which is all the BDSers are, despite their endless claims to represent some sort of “peace camp”) demonstrate their only bit of sensitivity: an ability to smell blood.

For whenever shooting starts (or, more specifically, whenever their chosen side no longer remains the only ones firing shots), street protests demanding “peace” (i.e., an immediate cease fire which will leave the propagandist’s allied armies unbroken) break out, protests which tend to draw new activists to the cause (many of whom simply represent uninformed people eager to “do something” to end what they see as a senseless war).

Because these recently minted activists (which the harder men and women leading the “movement” consider so much “loose change“) tend to wander off after a conflict dies down, it becomes imperative that they be given something to do to preserve their interest as battles leave the front pages.  And, for all its faults, BDS is a simple propaganda technique which provides such activists an outlet for their continued energies.

After all, a boycott or divestment program can import the Middle East conflict into virtually any civic organization in the land, since (according to the BDSers anyway), owning a single share of Hewlett Packard or stocking a single bottle of Soda Stream means an institution is “taking sides” in the Arab-Israeli conflict and thus becomes a target for protest.

With virtually the whole world a potential target, why not use this simple tactic to gin up enthusiasm and headlines (even if no one has actually chosen to boycott or divest, despite twelve years of BDS effort)?  For in many ways the goal is not to get anyone to actually divest, but to do whatever is needed to try to get the BDS “Israel = Apartheid” propaganda message to come out of the mouth of an institution more well known than the Israel hating organizations (which pretty much includes everyone).

Which is why we will see more impotent student council resolutions floated at various colleges over the rest of this school year, led by groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which never tire of shoving pictures of dead Palestinian babies into people’s faces and insisting these images require students to do what they say (even if those pictures turn out to be of Syrians or Israelis).

It’s also why every artist or other celebrity planning to visit the Jewish state can expect a torrent of pleading and moral blackmail on their Facebook pages, and why new pickets can be expected at retail outlets selling products like Sabra Hummus (which, given that Sabra is in 80% of supermarkets, means the BDSers have a limitless number of opportunities).

Alas, there is no argument or editorial that will prevent such activity (no matter how deft or well written), for as we have seen the boycotters are both impervious  to reason themselves and dedicated to ensuring that reason does not enter the conversation when they present their case to the public.

And so we’ll have to slog it out, one school, one store protest, one bus ad at a time, ensuring the BDSers meet the same universal defeat at ground level during their second decade that we enjoyed delivering to them during their first ten years.

And for those who might lose patience with the struggle, keep in mind the stakes.  And keep in mind that the battle tactics we choose will resemble those used historically (and successfully) to deal with any siege.

And both the stakes and this siege metaphor are related, for just as Israel has maintained its safety while under military and economic siege for seven decades (a siege in which Israeli society flourished while its besiegers descended into barbarism as kings made way for military dictators who are now in the process of being replaced by religious fanatics), we defenders of Israel must demonstrate similar patience and courage.

So man the walls and keep in mind that – despite what others might tell you – time is actually on our side.

Strategy and Tactics: Offense and Defense

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Strategy

Whenever I hang out with fellow activists, either officially or socially, a subject that inevitably comes up is offense and defense.

“Why are we always on the defensive?” “We can’t win if we just play defense!” “It’s time to go on the attack!” “Even if we win a particular fight, we can’t win long-term if we simply defend while the other side is allowed to always take the initiative.” are just some of the ways the same argument is brought to bear again and again.

Having watched or taken part in various BDS battles for more than half a decade, fights that require our side to turn back or reverse a divestment vote at some university or church (i.e., play defense) that the other side has initiated (offensively), I can understand the frustration behind the offense vs. defense argument in its various guises.

At the same time, the terms “offense” and “defense” only describe tactics, and tactics must be dictated by strategy which, in turn, are supposed to support specific goals. And if your ultimate goals are militant (such as destroying the Jewish state or weakening it to the point where it becomes more vulnerable to destruction), then it is easier to devise strategies to achieve these destructive ends (such as the “Apartheid strategy” designed to weaken support for Israel with its crucial US ally via a campaign of de-legitimization) which require offensive tactics such as BDS to implement.

But if your ultimate goals are NOT destructive, then it becomes more difficult to build or sustain a strategy designed around perpetual attack. For example, despite fantasies that Israel is a genocidal, expansionist power eager to kill every Arab it can reach as it expand its borders from the Nile to the Euphrates (really a description of Israel’s foes which they project onto Israel), the goal of the vast majority of Israelis and their supporters is to find a way to live in peace with not just the Palestinians but the entire Arab world.

Given this, efforts to build a strategy that will involve perpetual attack on those you ultimately want to live in peace with invariably fail to find enough support to become widely used. And even aggressive individual campaigns invariably become impossible to sustain, not because those who initiate them are lazy or lose their nerve, but because they inevitably run into the contradiction of maintaining a non-stop assault on those with whom most of us desire to live alongside without conflict.

The other issue I have with this “offense vs. defense” reasoning derives from what I know as an extremely amateur student of classical battle strategy. For prior to the age of air power, shock and awe, and asymmetrical warfare, the vocabulary of battle was as much about the garrison and the siege as it was about the clash of armies in the field engaged in offensive vs. defensive tactics.

To take one historic example, when the Byzantine army attempted to win back the Italian peninsula from the Ostragoths who had captured it after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantines managed to lay siege to several major cities, capturing some and garrisoning them in the process. These Byzantine-garrisoned cities later came under siege from Ostragothic forces attempting to win them back.

In this example, where the same army may be laying siege to one city, while defending against another siege at a different city a few miles up the road, which side is on the offense and which is playing defense? In a war that involves recapturing territory that may have been lost recently in a previous war, even being an invader does not necessarily put an army in the attacker vs. defender role.

I mention this because the metaphor that best describes Israel’s situation (and by extension the situation of its supporters abroad) is that of the siege. This was the title of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s fabulous history of Israel (the book I recommend to anyone who wants a crash course in the Middle East conflict), and it was no accident that this eloquent man of letters chose the term “siege” as the title of his one work on this subject.

For Israel’s military doctrine is based on fending off an attack from any possible combination of hostile forces that surround it. In other words, they are defending their city (really their nation) against someone else’s attack, which according to the arguments mentioned at the top of this piece would put them in the category of playing perpetual defense. Yet no one would describe the IDF, which maintains the siege walls, as lacking courage for not going on the attack more often. In fact, one of the most frequent reasons for a besieged city being lost was military leaders inside the city getting restless for a pitched battle and leaving the safety of the city walls to engage the enemy unnecessarily in the field.

I say unnecessarily because, historically speaking, the siege is just as hard (sometimes harder) on the besieger than the besieged. While it’s certainly no fun to have your city surrounded by soldiers firing arrows and building battering rams and catapults, it’s also no fun building those siege engines while defenders in the city pelt you with rocks, hot oil, dung and arrows. Besieging armies must survive in camps and forage for food (further and further from home base, the longer the siege goes on), while defenders can live in relative comfort and safety within their walls, presuming they have enough supplies to outlast the army at the gates.

Again, Middle East history bears out this siege parallel. For after 62 years, Israel behind its walls is more prosperous than ever, enjoying six decades of constitutional government. But during that same period, those who have maintained their siege against the Jewish state have watched their societies come apart at the seams with oligarchs and kings giving way to military dictatorships which are now fighting civil wars against religious fanatics, all the while sinking further and further into poverty and despair (despite God’s having planted half the world’s oil reserves under their feet).

The instability of the anti-Israel community described previously is another example where organizations dedicated to laying siege to Israel by proxy are perpetually falling apart while organizations dedicated to defending the Jewish state have gone from strength to strength.

Now fighting siege warfare does not simply involve cowering behind walls hoping your enemy will go away. Clashes at the walls are always part of the picture, as are skirmishes and even (ideally well-thought-out) battles that involve leaving the city to engage the enemy. But we should never lose site of the fact that the metaphor that describes our condition is not the standing army with its offensive and defensive strategies, but the siege which has its own logic, and its own legacy of strategy and tactics which can lead to victory.

Onto Part VI (Conclusion) – Let’s Talk About Us